In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Paris Sanchez, chair of the Historic and Cultural Landmarks Commission, discusses what the commission does and how residents can get involved.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Rachel Behrndt: Thank you so much for joining me. Can you give a brief overview of exactly what the Historic and Cultural Landmarks Commission does for the city of Fort Worth.
Paris Sanchez: Yeah, absolutely. So one of the ways that a lot of cities preserve their culture, or they have a unique identity, is by preserving their historic buildings and the history of the city. So we want to encourage that, especially within a lot of the residential neighborhoods. The Fairmount district is one of the most popular neighborhoods in the city. And it’s because of that historic character that a lot of these homes have. And so by preserving that, we’re preserving the history of the city for the future of Fort Worth. When the neighborhoods reach a certain age and have the ability to have that historic designation, they have to apply for it. It’s not something that we push for, it’s something that’s requested by the residents. They do all of their footwork to get themselves listed as a historic residence, and then the preservation staff with the city works with them to create their historic guidelines. This is the architectural characteristics of the homes that are typically found in those neighborhoods, and kind of determines what is and isn’t allowed.
So the Historic and Cultural Landmark Commission, we take those designations and those guidelines that the city staff has worked with the neighborhoods to create, and we just make sure that those are being enforced. A lot of times we’ll have a resident come in and say, ‘Oh, I wanted to make this change to my house.’ So we will look at if that change is upheld by the guidelines of that district, and does uphold the historical integrity of the neighborhood. If it does, then we’ll say, ‘Yes, go ahead. That sounds great.’ And sometimes, especially lately, we’ve had a lot of times where we have to say no. We’re not trying to be mean, but we want to make sure that the historical integrity of those neighborhoods stays intact. That is something again, that was requested by the residents of that neighborhood. So, you know, we’re not inflicting it upon them. Anytime they want to change those guidelines, they just have to get the residents of that neighborhood to come together and change that. So we’re not trying to enforce something on them that’s not wanted by the neighborhood itself.
Behrndt: If someone finds themselves needing or wanting to go before the commission, what’s some information that they would want to have with them and maybe some tips for communicating clearly with commission members?
Sanchez: A lot of the cases that we see are, we’re kind of half and half, sometimes they will be building a new house in a historic district on like an empty lot or something. So if that’s the case, then they want to just have their district guidelines, so that they can make sure that they are following the guidelines of the neighborhood in the design of their new house, and then also pictures of the houses around them. So even across the district, there may be several different architectural styles, but the street that you’re building on may have more craftsman homes. So if that’s the case, we’re going to encourage them to build a more craftsman-designed house, so it kind of just goes with the integrity of the street. Having images of other houses in their area, specifically on their block, that kind of goes with what they’re wanting to do. So that’s really helpful as far as a new build.
As far as historical homes, having historical imagery, which I know can be sometimes hard to find, but the UTA Library is a really good resource for that. Having imagery, having aerial shots as well, which are pretty easy to find online, and saying, ‘Oh, the house used to have this, and we want to go back to that, or we want to change this for this reason.’ The guidelines, and then historical imagery and kind of context are good things to have.
Behrndt: When people want to change their house or make changes to their house or build a new development — are those the main reasons why someone would want to go before the commission? Are there any other reasons why the public might be interested in what the commission is doing and the decisions that they’re making?
Sanchez: Typically, it’s usually when people are wanting to either build a new home or make changes on their home. Sometimes we do see commercial spaces. So like, recently, we saw a case in The Stockyards. And so The Stockyards have kind of its own little special overlay district. But this was kind of right on the edge. So it still kind of contributed to the historic character of The Stockyards, but it wasn’t within their little district. The building was in really bad shape, like really, really bad. So from a historical context, we would love to preserve that building, just to preserve the history of the site. But the owner did get various, you know, inspections and things like that, showing that it just wasn’t worth saving, it was going to cost more to try to save it. And so we did end up allowing them to demolish that building because it just wasn’t structurally sound. And it was really a hazard. And so, you know, sometimes it’s situations like that.
Our preference is to try to preserve history as much as possible. Historic Fort Worth is a private organization, but they help us a lot. Sometimes if there’s a case that they feel very strongly about one way or another, saying, yes, this is an eyesore, this is a hazard. But most of the time, again, they want to try to preserve the historic building. So, they’ll send a letter in, or they will appear at our commission meetings, advocating for saving the structure or upholding the historic integrity instead of allowing the owner to make a change that may not do that. We kind of try to hear all sides of the story. But then at the end of the day we really are looking at ‘these are the guidelines, are we kind of functioning within these guidelines or not?’ So, sometimes we do have to make hard decisions. If the homeowners say, ‘Well, I want to do this because of X reason.’ But at the end of the day, if it doesn’t fall within the guidelines, we can’t make one exception, because then we have to make all the exceptions.
Behrndt: My last question that I have for you is, what does helping to preserve the historic character of these neighborhoods across the city. What do you feel like that sort of adds to the city of Fort Worth? Why should people really care about how their city and their neighborhoods are being preserved?
Sanchez: Yeah, absolutely. It kind of goes back to what I was saying at the beginning a little bit, the kind of character of a city and the integrity of the city comes from those historic neighborhoods and those historic buildings. If it’s all bright, shiny and new, well, that’s really pretty, but there’s no real identity. And Fort Worth does have such a rich historical story and integrity,that we want to try to preserve that as much as possible. Looking across the city, especially because our city was built over such a long period of time, we can only look at these neighborhoods that were built in the early 1900s, and see what was happening in the life of Fort Worth at that time. You kind of have that historical connection.
Then you see the neighborhoods, like Ridglea, and those areas that are not currently designated as historic but are right now reaching the age where they can apply for that, and so we can see what the city was doing at that period of time. So in like the 1950s, and 60s, as cars became more of a daily use in people’s lives, how they developed their houses, and what happened there. I think it’s important to look at how these neighborhoods have shaped our city, and how the architecture of these buildings have really contributed to the history of our city. One of the things that we really like to do is look at who lived in these homes. We saw a case a while back that was a small little bungalow, it didn’t look like anything special, but there was someone really important who had lived there. They were the mayor of Fort Worth, at some period of time. The movers and shakers of the city were in these buildings at one time and shaping our city. Making sure we’re preserving that and not just kind of glossing over it.
The Fairmount district is one of our most popular historic districts. That is one of the most popular areas of town to be in right now. So people really do love these historic communities and these neighborhoods, and they want to be in them. And so we want to make sure that they get preserved. And we’re not just glossing over it, and moving on to the next shiny thing. If we can preserve it for now, in 100 years some of these neighborhoods, these newer neighborhoods that are going in, may be the places that people want to see. So we want to kind of think about the future by remembering and respecting the past.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.